Category Archives: Hugh Patterson

The King’s Gambit

There was a time, not so long ago, when chess was played in a daring and romantic way. During the 19th Century, Gambits were King and swashbuckling sacrifices were the order of the day! One opening, the King’s Gambit, was commonly played and led to some of the most exciting chess games of this period. I teach it to my students because many good lessons can be found within this opening. So let’s travel back in time, to a world in which chess players didn’t depend on computers to aid them in their positional decision making. This was a era when a game of chess was truly a battle of two minds, a form of mental Kung Fu if you will!

For those of you who are new to the game, let me start by defining a gambit. When employing a gambit, one player (usually white) will offer a pawn (or even two) during the opening in exchange for a positional advantage. This means that the player giving up the pawn will not get material back. Instead, our Gambiteer (as gambit players are called) will gain an advantage in position, such as the ability to get all of his or her minor pieces into the game quickly due to a lack of pawns blocking in those pieces. An advantage in position during the game’s opening gives the player with the advantage greater opportunities such as the ability to launch a strong attack or gain greater control of the board. More opportunities for one player means fewer opportunities for the other player. Greater opportunities lead to winning games!

The King’s Gambit starts with the moves 1. e4…e5 followed by 2. f4. White’s second move is the gambit. Why would White simply offer up the f pawn, one of the three pawns that form a wall in front of the King when castling short (King-side Castling)? Well, if black plays 2…exf4, then white has two pawns on central files, the d and e file, while black has only has one pawn on a central file, the d pawn. White therefore has a two to one pawn majority in the center. This would give white an advantage when it comes to controlling the center during the opening. However, if white plays 3. d4, Black would provide a nasty response in the form of 3…Qh4+, a check that has some weight to it because of the black pawn on f4! This consequence of an early d pawn push helps to teach students to build up a position slowly and carefully!

Beginners who are taught to gain control of the board’s center quickly during the opening, often prematurely push the white d pawn to d4, thinking that two pawns on central squares are better than one pawn on a central square. Combine this with the discovered attack by the c1 Bishop on the black pawn on f4 and you can see why the novice player might opt for this often disastrous move. The correct move for beginners is 3.Nf3. Moving the Knight to f3 stops the black Queen from checking on h4, keeps her from loitering on g5 and puts pressure on d4 and e5. Once the white Knight is placed on f3, the Black pawn on f4 is locked in place and a later pawn push can be made, d2-d4. The immediate lesson here is that you have to build up a position carefully, considering your opponent’s best response. Black has been known to play 3…g5, using the g pawn to protect the f4 pawn. Already, black’s King-side pawn structure is messy. Here, further development by white is in order, such as 4.Bc4. Black might counter with 4…g4, attacking the Knight on f3. At this point, I’ll ask my students to suggest two possible moves. One move that is suggested more often than not is 5.Ne5 which moves the Knight out of danger and allows it to attack the black g4 pawn. It seems reasonable, the Knight going from being attacked by a pawn to attacking that very same pawn. When I suggest castling, many students will cry out in horror that I’m about to give up my well placed Knight! The problem with 5.Ne5 is 5…Qh4+, which checks the white King. Let’s not forget that the black Queen has a few useful pawns to aid her in this attack! Beginners have the bad habit of not considering what their opponent’s best response is to the move they’re about to make. This example of black’s Queen check on h4 (after 5.Ne5) helps reinforce the idea of considering how your opponent might respond to your potential move. To help teach this idea regarding your opponent’s best response, only after they understand the basic moves of the King’s Gambit, I have them switch sides back and forth during this opening. So, after move two for black, 2…exf4, the student playing the white pieces trades places with the student playing the black pieces. They continue to do so throughout the next ten moves.

This brings us to another key point of the lesson, giving up material in exchange for a strong attack. To the beginner, it appears as if castling King-side loses the Knight on f3 because they’re not looking ahead. They see a minor piece about to be captured by a lowly pawn. Beginners tend only to see only a single move ahead. By this, I mean that they see the g4 pawn attacking the Knight and, if the Knight doesn’t move, it will be captured. They’re not seeing that if (after white castles) the black pawn on g4 takes the Knight (5…gxf3), the white Queen can capture that pawn and suddenly, the Bishop on c4, the Rook on f1 and the Queen on f3 are all aimed at Black’s weak f7 square. Of course, there is still a black pawn on f4 standing in the way of checkmate but that little pawn is undefended! This is a very clear example of giving up material in exchange for attacking chances. White has a strong potential attack with only a pawn standing in the way of checkmate.

Of course, in the above example, it’s black to move, so the black Queen can move to f6 to stop the potential checkmate. However, black is on the defensive and has to play carefully to avoid checkmate. There are a few moves that black can make to stop white’s mating attempt, so I’ll ask my students to find them.

I have young students who interpret my enthusiasm for this swashbuckling opening as a guaranteed way to win the game as white. This means that they think playing black against the King’s Gambit means a painful loss. We have to remember that these are very young players who are new to the game and see things in a very black and white manner (pun intended). To cure them of this way of thinking, the first full King’s Gambit game I show is one in which Boris Spassky, as black, pummels his opponent who plays the gambit against him. I show them this game, which I’ve posted below, to warn them of the dangers of thinking a specific opening is a sure thing. It helps to demonstrate the folly of not using sound principles, such as building up a position before launching an attack. It also goes to show that employing a gambit doesn’t guarantee success. Of course, playing a gambit against the likes of Boris Spassky, a tactical genius, may not be the brightest of ideas. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Share

True Freedom

Novice chess players often consider a piece to have complete freedom if it has some mobility. Mobility is a piece’s ability to move to or control an optimal number of squares. Obviously, a piece does have some form of freedom if it can control a large number of squares from its position on the board. The piece is free to move to those squares if need be. However, this freedom is only partial if the piece in question is tied down to the defense of another piece (or pawn). True freedom means not being tied down to a defensive role but rather, being able to move around without weakening the position.

To determine how much true freedom a piece has, we have to ask ourselves two questions. First, how many squares does that piece control? The greater the number, the more freedom it has. We examine this freedom in terms of mobility. A Bishop that can move to ten squares has greater mobility than a Bishop that can only move to two squares. The next question, a critical one that beginners often fail to ask, is whether or not the piece in question is defending another piece or pawn? If a piece has to play a defensive role, it isn’t truly free because moving it might allow the opposition to capture the previously defended piece. This could lead to a weakened position and eventually a lost game.

The Bishop that controls ten squares has far less freedom if it’s tied down defending another piece that is helping to maintain a position’s strength. If our Bishop moves, the defended piece might no longer be defended which means it can be captured. If it’s captured the position might be severely weakened to the point of no return. On the other hand, our Bishop that has far less mobility (two squares) can freely move to either of those squares without incurring a weakness on the position. Eventually, it can become more active. This is where pawns come into play so to speak!

One of the reasons pawns make great defenders for our pieces is because they have the lowest relative value so most players won’t trade a minor piece for a pawn unless doing so strengthens their position. By strengthening the position, I mean that the player trading down (minor piece for pawn) will either open up the position for an attack or deliver checkmate. Using pawns for defense duties allows your pieces true freedom since they’re not tied down to the defense of their fellow pieces. True freedom means having the ability to move around with no strings attached.

Of course, we have to assign some of our pieces defensive duties. You can’t get through a game of chess without a bit of defensive play. Even the most aggressive players find themselves in positions that require defensive measures. However, we need to carefully consider how we set up our defenses. This is where good pawn play comes into the mix. My students will often ask me why one player in a game made, what looks like to the beginner, a random pawn move. In actuality, that seemingly strange looking pawn move is made to defend a specific square from opposition occupation. The pawn defends a specific square so a piece doesn’t have to. Defending a square with pawn will make your opponent think twice before trading down. Again, employing the pawn as a defender leaves your pieces truly free. Mobility is unhampered!

We should always think of our pieces in terms of being passive and active. Passive pieces have little mobility, are tied down to defensive duties or both. Active pieces have unbridled mobility, free of any defensive duties. As we play through the opening, middle and endgame, we should always consider these two ideas when contemplating a move.

Gaining true freedom for our pieces is a strategic goal. When I teach strategic ideas, I teach them as long term goals, goals that we achieve over time. Beginners often think that once they get a piece to an active square, one that gives that piece decent mobility, the piece’s position cannot be improved upon. They fail to continue that piece’s development. A piece’s ability to increase in activity or mobility can always be improved upon. Just because you move your four minor pieces to active squares during the opening doesn’t mean they’re on their most active squares. From move to move, the game’s position changes and with those positional changes come opportunities to further increase a piece’s activity. However, if you suddenly have to employ that piece in the defense of another, you’re decreasing it’s activity.

If you have to suddenly use an active piece for the defense of another piece, see if you can move a pawn to take over that piece’s guard duties. Pieces that are truly free can become fierce attackers when the opportunity arises. As I mentioned earlier, positions change from one move to the next. A seemingly strong position can quickly fall apart. The player with the more mobile pieces and well placed pawns has a much greater chance of equalizing the suddenly weakened position than the player whose pieces are tied down to defensive duties. Strategy means always thinking ahead. Strategic thinking means playing your opening to set up your middle game and playing your middle game with an eye towards the endgame.

When you consider a move that gives a piece freedom, ask yourself if that piece is truly free or is it actually tied down. Pieces that are truly free have unhampered mobility which allows them to go on the offensive (attacking the opposition) rather than the defensive, babysitting fellow pieces. Make moves that develop pieces actively or increase mobility and always look to increase activity with subsequent moves. Strong activity and true freedom are created over time, not instantly. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

The Draw

I started our yearly summer program last week that runs until August. Every year, we do eight one week training camps for junior chess players. We divide the students into two groups, beginners and more advanced players. At the end of each week we have a non rated, informal tournament for each group to test their knowledge and our teaching program. I’ve kept records for the last four years of these weekly tournaments, including detailed information on the games themselves in an effort to see where I need to provide more educational information. For example, in the beginner’s section, there are a large number of games won employing the scholar’s mate. Thus, I know that our teaching staff needs to further reinforce defending against scholar’s mate. This last week, we had a large number of draws in our beginner’s section. While I expect a few draws here and there, the number we had was large enough to sound an alarm bell! Something was wrong!

From years of playing, teaching, coaching and working as a tournament arbiter, I’m pretty good at determining whether a position is drawn or not. With my advanced students, real drawn positions are reached. With my beginning students, what they consider a draw is often far from an actual draw. Let’s look at ways in which games can be drawn.

Perpetual check occurs when one player checks their opponent’s King repeatedly which can lead to a draw. You see this a great deal in the games of beginners who haven’t learned that pieces must work together, such as a King and Rook or King and Queen against a lone King. Beginners have a bad habit of checking the opposition King with their lone Queen as opposed to using their Queen with another piece (such as their King). The King gets checked and moves out of check. The King gets checked again and moves out of check and so on. Dozens of moves later and checkmate is no closer. Perpetual check actually leads to either a draw by threefold repetition or a draw under the fifty move rule (both discussed later on).

Stalemate is another way to draw the game. It occurs when one player’s King is the only piece that can move (the player in question can’t move any of their pawns because they’re stuck or immobile) but any square it moves to would place it in check. This is an extremely frustrating position for the beginner to be in because they often have the material necessary to win the game but don’t use that material correctly.

Then there’s having insufficient material to deliver checkmate. This problems arises when both players either trade all their material off the board, leaving just the opposing Kings or they only have their Kings and a Bishop each or a Knight each. This occurs in many young beginner’s games because they’re concentrating on capturing material. You can often hear young beginner’s say “I’m winning because I have more material!” This thinking leads to this kind of drawn game.

A draw by repetition means that both players make identical moves that produce the same position over the course of three complete game turns for both players. So one player makes a move followed by his opponent’s move and these exact moves are repeated two move times. Thus the term Draw by three fold repetition. Beginner’s who are not accustom to this rule often fall victim to it because, due to a lack of experience, they cannot find another way out of the position.

The fifty move rule is one that, surprisingly, I hear many of my young beginner’s claim as the reason for a draw. The rule states that if fifty consecutive moves have been made without a capture or pawn move then the game can be claimed drawn. Young beginners often translate this incorrectly, thinking that if no checkmate has been made in fifty moves the game is drawn. However, they often capture pieces and move pawns so the rule cannot apply.

Drawing the game by agreement is the young beginner’s way of saying “I can’t figure out how to checkmate my opponent and he or she is no closer to mate as well.”

With a few basic definitions provided we’ll now look at what happened with my beginning students and see how these rules actually applied. It should be noted that when many of these players started their summer session with me they only knew how to move the pawns and pieces, the most basic rules of the game.

In one game, one player had a Queen and King against an opposition Rook and Queen. Because I had two instructors watching the two sections for me, beginner and advanced, I caught the position when a draw was requested. The first question I asked was “why do you think this game is a draw?” Both of my young (1st grade) students replied that they didn’t think they could deliver checkmate because every time one of them checked, the other would simply move the checked King. Because our tournament was not rated, I offered a suggestion to both, you cannot checkmate with a lone Queen or lone Rook. Teamwork, pieces working together, is the only way to deliver a checkmate. While both players took this idea to heart, making an effort to coordinate their pieces rather than attempting further solo piece checks, they eventually requested a draw which I gave them. The fact that they tried counted for a lot!

In another game, when the request for a draw came up, one player had a Queen and a King against a lone King. Of course, this is an easily winnable endgame for the average player but remember, I’m working with very young children new to the game. I had given a lesson in basic endgame checkmates earlier in the week and suggested to the student with the Queen and King to think back to the lesson before considering a draw. “A lone piece cannot deliver checkmate. It has to work with another piece.” Both students went back to their game. When I walked by the board a bit later, I noticed some solid progress as King and Queen worked their way towards the lone opposition King. Sadly, the game ended in a stalemate. However, this was a legitimate draw.

There was a claim of the fifty move rule early on. I told my students that I wanted to see them play for a while longer so I could make sure they understood the true meaning of this rule. Not surprisingly, both players captured pieces and moved pawns only to then claim they’d adhered to this rule. When I asked them for their definition of the rule, they said “if you don’t deliver checkmate in fifty moves it’s a draw.” When I explained that they got the rule wrong, one student said his father told him the above so it’s true! Diplomatically, I explained the correct definition. Eventually, after they played for a while longer, I declared the game a draw because they would have ended up with a three hundred move game that got no where.

The overall reminder I got from this experience was that children new to chess don’t have the playing experience and knowledge required to know if a game really is drawn. They often reach a position beyond their scope of knowledge and don’t know what to do, which leads them to think the game cannot go on and is thus a draw. While this is the first time I’ve had a large number of draw requests in the beginner’s section it serves as a strong reminder that teaching programs must be flexible. These same students who I’ll work with during the coming week will start that week with a full two days of basic endgame situations and a thorough examination of what leads to a drawn game. While we did cover this during the previous week, obviously we have to provide further training. Teaching is an evolving process, one that can always be improved upon. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

For The Love of The Game

When we start playing chess as beginners, we play because we are intrigued with the game. We play purely for the pleasure of an intellectual challenge! I say this because when I started playing I did so because I was fascinated by the game. I was fascinated by the endless positional possibilities within a single game, the number of which is literally astronomical. Unlike other board games that relied almost purely on chance, the role of the dice, chess requires strategic and tactical abilities which translates to using your brain. It’s an intimate battle between two minds. The game’s two players face off against one another employing what I call Kung Fu of the intellect.

I teach in thirteen different schools as of now and have many students who have been with me for years. These long time students have given me the chance to watch some of them lose sight of their initial love of the game, replacing it with a lust for ratings points. Of course, rating points are basically a measure of one’s level of play or improvement, yet they become a symbol of status for some players. While there is nothing specifically wrong with this (it can drive some players to a higher skill level), one should always play for the love of the game.

In my own teaching career, I find that every student is gunning for me, wanting to beat me at the game I teach. To a certain point, I encourage this. After all, if I take a youngster and work with them, and this leads to them becoming a stronger player than I, then I’ve done my job! However, there is a fine line to competitiveness, one that should be respected. I know one particular student who has an extremely competitive father. The father, after his son had studied with me for a year, pushed him into going after me on the chessboard. The father was a bit of a chess hustler who won his games employing all or nothing tactics. Of course, he imparted this knowledge to his son who used it to win quite a bit. When I finally sat down at the chessboard to take on the student’s challenge, I closed the game down, making it about positional play and not tactics. Needless to say, I won. The father, upset that his son didn’t “clean my clock,” an attitude no child should employ in chess or life, challenged me to a game. He invited the class to watch.

This is a position I don’t like to be in because if I won, I’d feel as if I was making matters worse for my student. While I tried to diplomatically get out of playing, the father insisted we play. To be honest, I was a bit fed up with the situation and started thinking to myself “I’m going to destroy this man consequences be damned!” Sorry friends, I’m human and certainly not a saint, so the bloody battle went on. His biggest mistake was allowing me to play the white pieces because I played for a closed position, simply and carefully activating my pieces until I had a stranglehold on things. I won and it was the worst feeling ever. The father grabbed his son, stormed out and that was the last I saw of either of them.

Of course, I’ve played other parents who were absolutely wonderful opponents. In fact, I’ve been playing regularly with two of them for the last three years. However, my previous example brings up the question, where does one draw the line at competitiveness? There seem to be two predominant factions when it comes to competitiveness, those who push it beyond sanity and those who are drastically are against it. The father, in my former example, is the alpha male who wants to win at all costs. The latter are those that think every child should be rewarded whether they win or lose. While I believe in making my students happy, I honestly think that simply rewarding everyone regardless of results undermines the idea of healthy competition.

Competition, when employed with some sanity, is a good thing. It creates an environment in which one strives to be better at whatever it is they’re doing. Healthy competition drives civilization forward to a certain point. However, there’s that thin line that must not be crossed, the one that leads to a win at all costs mentality. Therefore, I teach my students to play for the love of the game.

To do this, I bring in other elements when I teach them chess. We learn the game through science, art and history. Using science, we explore the mathematics of the game, how the staggering large number of possible positions comes about (numerically speaking). With art, we look at the positional beauty that arises in certain games. Using history, we look at historical events that took place during the game’s evolution. I do this so my students have different connections to the game rather than simply a win or lose mentality. Homework, (yes, I manage to get my students to do homework and their parents to accept it – I suspect because of my punk rock past that I scare them) includes short essays on science, art and history, and how it relates to chess.

Of course, there comes a point when my students start playing in tournaments and the concept of rating points enters their minds. I explain to them that one’s rating is simply a measure of where they’re at on the road to improvement. I go on to say that, like the stock market, ratings go up and ratings go down. More importantly, I carefully explain that one’s rating increases the more one studies and then plays the game, adding that there are no shortcuts to a higher rating. We spend a great deal of time discussing the concept of chess ratings and I reinforce our discussion by pointing out that in the end it’s simply a tool that measures one’s level of play. We humanize the concept of ratings rather than put it on a pedestal which in turn can create unhealthy competitiveness.

Chess is a very philosophically three dimensional game in that it incorporates science and art. It’s also a very personal game for those who play it because your only weapon is your mind. When we win we feel good because we feel that our mind has triumphed over another mind. It’s this same idea that also makes losing painful. When I see my students lose a game, I can clearly see the pain in their eyes. I remind them that those who play purely for the love of the game will take a loss and use it as tool for improvement, examining that loss and discovering where they went wrong. When you play for the love of the game you can appreciate a beautifully played game, even if you’re on the losing end of it. While we all aim to improve our rating, don’t let it be the sole focus of your playing because doing so robs you of all the game has to offer. Play because you simply love to challenge your mind. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

The Ceiling

Whether you’re a beginner or a titled player, you reach a point in your chess career in which you stop moving forward and get stuck. You go through a period of of often rapid improvement, then hit a ceiling. For some the ceiling seems to be made of steel while for others it’s made of glass which is much easier to break through. It’s the ability to break through this ceiling that allows us to advance or improve. What is it that allows some players to break through and get better while others remain stuck? It all boils down to identifying the problem or problems that hold us back and solving them.

While you’d think beginners would have a harder time breaking through the ceiling and advancing their skills further, the intermediate player often has a harder time. Beginners generally have more obvious problems and because they’re obvious, they’re easier to identify and thus solve. If you’re a beginner and have become stuck in your advancement, you problems are easy to identify. You should first try to determine in which phase of the game you’re having problems. Rather than jumping around the opening, middle and endgames in no particular order, start by looking at your opening play.

Every move you make during the opening game should adhere to a principle. Remember, your opening game goal is to set up pawns and pieces for action in the middle game. You do this by starting your battle for control of the board’s center by using a pawn or two to control a central square. Next you develop your minor pieces, Knights and Bishops, to squares that also exert control over the central squares. King safety is critical so castling is next. Then you connect your Rooks by moving the Queen up a rank. After that, you keep developing material until you have pawns and pieces on their most active squares, those that control territory (especially on your opponent’s side of the board).

Often beginners develop some pawns and pieces and consider their work in the opening done. Then they launch a premature attack, lose material and weaken their position. Don’t launch early attack unless they really turn the tide. Always examine your pawn structure. Don’t bring your Queen out early. Don’t move the same piece over and over again neglecting the development of other pieces. Don’t make to many pawn moves early on. Use these ideas as the basis for your questions as to why you’re not doing well in the opening.

In the middle game, beginners will see an opportunity to start attacking. Don’t attack unless it strengthens your position or greatly weakens your opponent’s position. Early attacks can backfire and leave you with a losing position. Count the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. You need to have more attackers than opposition defenders and, when defending, more defenders than opposition attackers. If considering a move, ask yourself what your opponent’s best response would be. Pretend you are your opponent and think about what you would do if faced with the move you’re considering. Watch your pawn structure, because when going into the end game phase, you’ll need those pawns for promotion purposes. Be patient and build up your position. Again, take these ideas and pose them to yourself as questions. If you’re not following these ideas, you’ve found your problem.

During the end game, when there is a limited amount of material on the board, bring your King into the game. Too many beginners leave their King on its starting rank and watch in horror as their opponent’s King comes alive and hunts down their pawns. The King must be activated. Use your King to safely escort your pawns to their promotion squares. Ask yourself if you’re doing this!

These basic ideas should allow the beginner to determine where they’re having problems and how to fix those problems, employing these game principles. With intermediate players, it can be a bit more difficult. Intermediate players know basic game principles and apply them correctly. So how does the intermediate player find the problems that keep them from breaking through the ceiling?

Start by going through the ideas I’ve presented for beginners. If you’re a bit surprised by this, don’t be! I’ve seen quite a few intermediate students start to neglect principled play. They think that they’ve mastered the basics and now its time to bend the principles. Unfortunately, what they consider bending the principles is actually breaking the principles which creates positional problems. Bending a principle, for example, could be placing a piece towards the edge of the board rather than towards the center because this piece is doing something useful. 3.Bb5 in the Ruy Lopez indirectly effects the center because the Bishop attacks the black Knight on c6 which is protecting the black pawn on e5. On the other side of the coin, Moving the White Knight from f3 to g5, then using it to capture the black pawn on f7, while neglecting the development of your other pieces is breaking a principle and will leave you with a bad position. Even if you have a Bishop (as white) on c4 to co-attack the black f7 pawn, you’re opponent can still develop a solid position while you throw all your eggs into one attacking basket. Start with the same questions beginners should ask when determining where they’re going wrong first.

If you’re using the principles correctly, move on to the next set of questions, starting with pawn structure. They wouldn’t be so many books on pawn structure, not to mention numerous videos, if players didn’t have problems in this area. Many intermediate players are good at basic tactics and use tactical ideas to win games. However, they often do so while neglecting pawn structure. Why is pawn structure so important? Well, if you’re facing an opponent who is equally versed in tactics, you’ll most likely make it to the end game. They player with the better pawn structure going into the end game has an advantage. If you have isolated pawns and too many pawn islands, you’ll have to deal with those issues which means a lot of defending. Meanwhile, you’ll opponent, with the better pawn structure will be able to get one of his or her pawns to its promotion square. Intermediate players should consider the moves they make and how they’ll effect the end game.

Intermediate players should also look at their positional play as opposed to their tactical play. In the average scheme of things, intermediate players first get good at tactics which allows them to win a fair number of games. However, they eventually face off against the positional player, the player who worships Petrosian, and find the life slowly being strangled out of their position. The intermediate player should aim towards positional play, employing tactics if they come up and only if they don’t weaken the position. The intermediate player should be a balanced player, being equally good at the opening, middle and end games. Being great at one phase and not so great at the other two phases doesn’t win games.

So to break through that ceiling and get better, ask questions, starting with the simplest. Often you’ll find that a simple problem may be holding you back. Be systematic in your questioning. Here’s a game in which one player breaks a few opening principles and gets hammered for it. Enjoy.

Hugh Patterson

Share

The Sinking Ship

Every chess player has found themselves in a position so seemingly bad that it’s as if they were on a sinking ship. I say seemingly because often appearances can be deceiving. Beginners, who lack playing experience, tend to give up hope when hitting the smallest bump in the positional road. Of course, there are positions where one should simply resign, but there are also many positions that look worse than they actually are. I have seen countless student games in which one player will resign even though they have a completely playable position. They resign because not only can’t they find a way to improve things but they have no way in which to accurately measure the position’s true nature. Can it be saved or is resignation in order? To answer this question, one must look at a position objectively, questioning that position by using principled elements to arrive at an answer.

For beginners, it’s best to start with the simplest questions, such as do I have more or less material than my opponent? Taking stock of material balance issues can be a good first step in determining just how much trouble you’re in. With beginners, an early deficit in material, being down a pawn or two or perhaps a minor piece, can be overcome. However, being down a Queen can have devastating consequences. Beginners love to bring their Queens out early, often losing them in the process. Therefore, I have a training rule to prevent this. If you bring your Queen out early and lose it during a practice game, you have to resign. Needless to say, this curbs early Queen play! You should always try to maintain a material balance. If you do find yourself with less material, consider the material you’re missing and how that affects the position. In the opening and middle game, minor pieces are critical. If you’re down a minor piece or two, you’ll have play more defensively because you don’t have key pieces that can aid in potential attacks. When in this kind of trouble, hang on to your material and play to reestablish material balance. Your opponent may try to trade material which means they will have a greater advantage in the endgame. Avoid trades if possible, when down material, and aim for equalization.

Development is another principled consideration. Beginners have trouble with good development when they first start playing. They often move the same piece again and again while their opponent follows principled play, bringing a new piece into the game with each move. Development is critical during the game’s opening phase and going into the middle game. You should examine whether or not your opponent has better development, pieces being on their most active squares, when determining how much trouble you might be in. If your opponent has better development, they have greater control of the board which makes it difficult for you to launch successful attacks. Beginners often panic when faced with an opposition position in which their opponent controls the board. However, before throwing in the towel and simply resigning, remember that position’s are fluid, they sometimes change drastically within a few moves. Look to improve your own position by challenging your opponent’s control of board space. Use pieces of lesser value to challenge pieces of greater value. Doing so will force your opponent to give up some control, allowing you to gain it!

Potential attacks against your pawns and pieces is another consideration when trying to work your way out of a bad position. Beginners hang pieces or lose a series of exchanges because they don’t carefully consider the number of attackers versus the number of defenders. If you have a pawn or piece under attack and your opponent has three attackers to your one defender, you’ll more than likely have to give up that pawn or piece. It’s a lost cause and trying to defend a lost cause will only make the position worse. Look for a counter attack elsewhere. If you can attack an opposition piece of greater value, your opponent will first have to deal with your threat. This could change the dynamic of the position, giving you room to regroup. Know when to give up material to an overwhelming opposition attack. You can’t hope to put out a raging fire with a thimble full of water!

Timing is everything. For example, since White moves first, White has a free turn. White starts off one move ahead of Black. If you move the same piece over and over again while your opponent brings a new piece into play with each move, you’re essentially giving your opponent a free turn with each move of the same piece. How far behind are you in tempo? If your opponent is ahead by five tempi, you have a lot of catching up to do. If behind, try to catch up but don’t try to catch up by launching an all or nothing attack. Think pawn and piece activity.

Determine the safety of your King. Beginners learn the reason for King safety the hard way by not Castling and getting checkmated. You’ll want to see if your King is facing a mating attack and determine what kind of damage will result when having to avoid such an attack. Questions one should ask are will my position be irreversibly weakened or damaged defending against an attack and will I lose so much material in avoiding mate that winning is no longer an option? Of course, one should ask if checkmate is unavoidable? Beginners often have trouble with this last question because they are still learning mating patterns and sometimes can’t see a mate in three or four.

Are your Rooks activated? I see so many junior level games in which both players Rooks are sitting on their starting squares gathering dust! Beginners will wring their hands in despair, thinking a position is lost because they can’t move a pawn from its starting square because it will be captured upon doing so. Why not use a Rook that is still on its starting Rank to protect that pawn?

These basics ideas are all interrelated, one being intimately tied to the others. Each move you make should have purpose. If someone asked you why you made a specific move, you should be able to provide a sound explanation. Just this idea alone will go a long way towards keeping your positional ship afloat! When you find yourself in a troublesome position, determine why you’re in that undesirable situation. Determine the basic cause of the problem and see of you can work your way out of it. Not every position can be fixed but panicking and giving up before looking for a solution will not help you improve your game. Trying to think your way out of a bad position will help improve your game, even if you don’t end up winning the game after working your way through the problem at hand. We learn from our losses. However, don’t assume a position is hopeless until you ask a few questions. Sometimes a sinking ship can remain afloat long enough for a rescue to ensue! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

Logic and Reasoning Skills

One of the thought processing skills that chess helps develop is logic and reasoning. It’s the understanding and employment of logic and reasoning that allows a chess player to determine the best course of action within a given position. The problem that many novice players face when examining a position on the board is not so much finding the solution but determining the the correct questions to be asked that lead to that solution. After all, if you ask the wrong questions, you’ll identify the wrong problem and you won’t be able to determine the correct solution because you’re not seeing the real issue at hand. To solve any problem, you must first ask the correct questions, using logic and reasoning as your guide. This is why I teach my students problem solving skills they can use away from the chessboard first, only then applying them to the game of chess, once they’ve be mastered.

To teach logic and reasoning, I give my students some geographical problems to solve. The first of which has to do with travel. I tell them I’m taking a trip. I’m leaving from San Francisco to a destination that is roughly 3,000 miles away. Their job is to ask the appropriate questions in order to determine the right answer. Our overall goal is to ask the fewest possible questions to achieve the correct answer, which takes practice. From San Francisco, you can go roughly 3,000 miles in any direction and arrive at some destination. Therefore, the first question you might consider is which direction am I traveling? North, South, East or West? Let’s say I’m traveling East. You might then ask, how wide is the United States? It’s roughly 3,000 miles wide. Just two questions have now brought you close to the answer. Because there are many large metropolitan areas within 3,000 miles of San Francisco, you might ask what State am I traveling to and I’d answer New York. Here, many students jump the gun so to speak and say “you’re going to Manhattan, the Big Apple.” I’d say sorry, wrong answer but you’re on the right track. You might ask, is it close to Manhattan? I’d say “yes, just a subway ride away and there’s a bridge named after it.” If you said Brooklyn, you’d be correct. These questions follow a logical sequence rather than a random sequence, forming a pattern leading towards the answer.

Next we gear up the challenge. I tell my students my new destination is roughly 5,500 miles away. The parameters have now changed. With greater distance comes a greater number of possible destinations. Students know from the first problem that direction of travel is a key question to be asked. North, South, East or West? I tell them East. They know from the first problem that the United States is roughly 3,000 miles wide. This means that the first 3,000 miles leads them to the Eastern side of the United States. However, they now have to consider the remaining 2,500 miles. My more astute students will ask for a world atlas with the idea of determining the width of the Atlantic Ocean. I allow them to use an atlas, which I keep with me when we do these exercises. Once they determine that the Atlantic Ocean is close to 2,500 miles wide, it’s time to hone in on my destination a bit further. Because there are two large bodies of land, Europe and Africa, those could be destination points, so their next logical question is which of the two continents is it? Europe, I reply. Here things can get a bit tricky because there are a number of destinations near the Atlantic Coast of Europe that could be my target. Older students who have worked through these problems before, might narrow it down by asking for rough coordinates or longitude and latitude. They might also ask if my destination is on an Island, narrowing the field down quite a bit. The point here is that my students are logically narrowing down my destination sequentially through their questions. I’ll either give them my target’s rough longitude and latitude or perhaps tell them it’s an island. Working through the exercise, employing the right questions, they conclude my destination is England. Where in England? Here I tell them to narrow it by considering my destination to be a metropolitan center for chess in the UK. Many students don’t at first realize that London is the target. However, by asking further questions such as, does this metropolitan center also serve as the country’s Governmental center? Does it have a famous Bridge? It my target address 44 Baker Street? (Yes, a shameless plug for the London Chess Center) Eventually they deduce the correct answer!

You might ask, what does a geography challenge have to do with chess? The answer is simple: As I said early, beginning players often have trouble with positional problems on the chessboard because they’re not fully identifying the actual problem. They might identify “a problem” but is it the correct problem. If you identify the wrong problem, even a good answer to that identified problem does you no good if it’s not the answer to the real or underlying problem. The exercises we employ help students with their chess playing because they learn how to ask the right questions which will ultimately lead them to discovering and addressing the real problem being faced. It’s an introduction to logical thinking and the application of reasoning to problem solving. If you ask the right questions, you’re more likely to discover the real problem. Here’s how this might work when a beginner is trying to identify a positional problem on the chessboard (note, this is a very broad example):

Often beginners apply the opening principles correctly and find themselves going into the middle game with a decent developmental position. So far so good. Then, their opponent makes a few moves that create noticeable problems for our novice player. The problem with multiple problems within a given position is identifying those problems and then deciding which problem needs to be addressed first. If one problem’s solution avoids material loss and the other avoids checkmate, avoiding being mated takes precedence.

Beginners have great trouble identifying a single positional problem let alone multiple problems. The key again is asking the right questions. One reason I use geographical problems in my student’s training is because chess positions are geometrical in nature. Geography is geometrical in nature! In a middle game position, for example, my students use a mental checklist to identify positional problems. They follow a logical sequence of questioning learned via my geography exercises. Imagine trying to determine a problem using random questions. With enough random questions asked, you might eventually identify the real problem. However, if you’re on the clock, your time might run out long before you identified the real issue at hand! Therefore, your questions should be sequential in nature. My students will look at the position and start narrowing things down using the right questions, starting with the most obvious ones. Are any opposition pieces attacking my pieces? If so, are those attacking pieces of greater or lesser value than the pieces being attacked? If the attacking piece is a Knight and the attacked piece a Rook, we might consider moving that Rook. However, before moving the Rook, we should ask if doing so weakens our position? Will moving the Rook cause a ripple effect, weakening our position so much that its moving (the Rook) would create a greater number of problems? Can we launch a counter attack of an opposition piece of equal or greater value? While this is a very generalized example, it serves to show how one can employ basic logic and reasoning skills to determine a problem and its solution. In our example, we would continue to work through our questioning. If we move our Rook out of harms way can we move it to a square that allows us to maintain our positional strength? If so, what square should we move it to? The idea here is to use logical questioning to discover the true nature of the problem and only then trying to solve it.

Once we look at the opposition’s pieces we look at ours. We might ask, if I make this move, what’s my opponent’s best response (move)? The key is always to ask questions that illuminate the biggest problem at hand, starting with an examination of our opponent’s pawns and pieces in relationship to our pawns and pieces. We examine each of our opponent’s pawns and pieces and question its relationship to our pawns and pieces which often reveals the problem. Logically, we’d start by examining the opposition pawns and pieces closest to our own material and work our way outward, using logical questions to guide us.

Again, if you don’t ask the right questions, you won’t get the right answer. With practice my student’s questions become very precise, with each question bringing them closer to the correct answer. I have my students keep a small notebook to write down questions they should ask and the order in which they should be asked. Every time a good question is asked, one that brings my students closer to the answer, they write that question down in their notebook. They refer to their questions when analyzing a position, eventually committing those questions to memory. Try some geography problems to sharpen your logic and reasoning skills and you’ll be rewarded when faced with a tricky positional problem. This is an extremely shortened version of how the process works (I could fully describe it in about twenty pages) but it will give you an idea of how to get started. Here’s a game to enjoy until next week!

Hugh Patterson

Share

Pawn Checklist

Beginners have the bad habit of becoming intoxicated with the power of the Queen, bringing her out prematurely which usually leads to disaster. These same beginners often treat their pawns as expendable, considering them of little value due to their seemingly limited abilities (in the novice player’s mind). Of course, the pawn has the lowest relative material value and this causes beginners to treat their pawns with little care. In reality the pawn is extremely powerful but only when used properly. Pawns can be the glue that binds a position together and if that glue fails, the position falls apart. I have my students repeat the phrase “pawns win games” over and over until it becomes a permanently embedded mantra.

It’s no fault of the beginner to assume that pawns aren’t very valuable. After all, each player has eight of them at the game’s start and they’re the lowest valued unit in one’s army. However, it’s usually the lowly pawn that first stakes a claim in the center of the board at the game’s start. The pawn also has the unique ability to promote into a major (Queen or Rook) or minor (Knight or Bishop) piece upon crossing the board and reaching its promotion square. Even pointing these ideas out to students, they still find themselves at odds when it comes to the question of working with their pawns. This is why I created a small list of things my students should be doing with their pawns and actions they should take against opposition pawns:

Keep you pawn structures intact! The perfect pawn structure can be found in the game’s starting position with white pawns on the second rank and black pawns on the seventh rank. Of course, this perfect pawn structure is altered the moment a pawn is moved. To keep pawn structures intact, consider moves that allow your pawns to work together. Pawn chains are one of the first pawn concepts my students learn. In a pawn chain, each pawn in the chain is supported by another pawn. So, looking at a chain of white pawns, for example, you’d have a pawn on b2, a pawn on c3, a pawn on d4 and a pawn on e5. With the exception of the b2 pawn, you have pawns protecting pawns. The point here is to make sure that you have at least one pawn on an adjacent file to lend support when needed. A pawn with no support pawns on either adjacent file is a pawn not long for this world. Try to develop pawns chains. This way, you don’t have to use your pieces to protect your pawns.

Your opponent will try to create pawn chains as well. These chains often control key squares in the center of the board. This means you’ll have to try to break those chains up. To do so, you’ll want to attack the base of the chain. In the above example, the base pawn is the b2 pawn. If you remove that pawn, the c3 pawn now has no support, making it vulnerable.

Create as few pawn islands as possible. Pawn islands are groups of pawns separated from one another by empty files. The more pawn islands you have, the greater the the number of resources or pieces you’ll have to employ in their defense. Imagine having a single piece to protect to defend your pawn islands. While that piece might be able to defend a single pawn island, defending two or three pawn islands would overload that piece (giving it too many jobs to do at once). Overloaded pieces are not participating fully in the game.

When advancing pawns, try to protect them with other pawns. If you’re thinking of advancing a pawn, make sure you can protect that pawn with another pawn on an adjacent file if possible. Of course, you can’t always do this, which means you may have to protect that pawn with a piece, but try to use pawns to protect or back up pawn advances. This is another reason why pawn chains are so important.

If you pawns are locked in place (they cannot move forward due to a material obstruction), try to use other pawns to free those locked pawns. Using pieces to do this job means you may have to give up extremely useful material to unlock the position. Pieces should be used for control of space rather than unlocking pawns. If you don’t see an immediate way to unlock your pawns using additional pawns, be patient. Remember, positions can change greatly within a few moves. If you cannot immediately unlock locked pawns with your own pawns, continue with active development, holding off on unlocking your pawns until you can do so with a pawn. Sometimes you can’t but again, be patient before giving up more valuable material to unlock your pawns.

Ending up with an isolated pawn is an occupational hazard for the average chess player (especially if you’re me). This means that sooner or later you’ll end up with one. An isolated pawn is one that has no fellow pawns on either adjacent file to help protect it. This is why pawn structure is so important! If you have an isolated pawn, consider keeping it mobile, moving forward towards its promotion square and protect it. Of course, having to protect it with a piece means that piece isn’t really working at its full potential. Therefore, avoid the isolated pawn! Examine your pawn structure before making any move and ask the question, “what does this do to my pawn structure and will this result in an isolated pawn?”

Create passed pawns when given the opportunity to do so. A passed pawn has no opposition pawns on adjacent files to stop its promotion. This means your opponent is going to have to use a piece to stop the passed pawn’s progress. So, if you create a passed pawn, push that pawn towards promotion, using a piece, such as a Rook to protect that pawn. Of course, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you must stop it, blockading it with a piece. While a passed pawn doesn’t always make it to its promotion square, it can tie up opposition pieces trying to stop its progress and that can be good for you if it’s your passed pawn!

On the other side of the coin, if your opponent has a passed pawn, you have to stop it. Try to use pieces of the least value to blockade the opposition’s passed pawn. The reasoning is simple: Pieces of greater value, such as the Rooks and Queen normally control more space on the board. In the end game, these pieces can be decisive because of their power. Beginners who know basic checkmating patterns can deliver mate with Queens and Rooks much easier than when using minor pieces. Therefore, you should use your minor pieces, the Knights and Bishops for blockading passed pawns. Of the two minor pieces, the Knight is a better choice for blockading because the Bishop is a good long distance attacker.

When down to a King and pawn against a lone King in the endgame, keep the King in front of the pawn (in opposition) rather than the pawn in front of the King until you can ensure its promotion (see my earlier article about pawn promotion for a full description of how to do this). Use you King as an active piece in the endgame to protect pawns heading toward their promotion squares. The King has to work in pawn endgames. If you have the lone King against an opposition King and pawn, do your best to use your King to control the enemy pawn’s promotion square.

Play the pawn game in which both players have only pawns. You have to get at least one pawn to its promotion square, promote that pawn into a Queen and capture all your opponent’s pawns to win. It’s a great way to learn about pawn structures, etc.

This is only a smattering of pawn concepts or ideas I present my students. However, I try to get them to grasp these basic ideas first, only later working on multiple pawn endgames (two or three pawns and their respective Kings for both players). Pawns are so important in chess that volume after volume has been written about working with pawns. However, I don’t expect my students to delve into these texts until they’ve played for a while. Be kind to your pawns because they often save the day! Here’s a game to enjoy until next week.

Hugh Patterson

Share

Really? A Battle of the Sexes

If you follow chess news around the world, you may have read a recent article about whether or not men are better at chess than women. Of course, the article created a bit of an uproar. The article’s author, a person I respect highly as a chess player, failed to provide any scientific evidence to back the claims being made that men make better chess players than women. If you are going to make a claim that men may be better than women at chess, please provide some sort of support or at the least some personal experience regarding the issue at hand. It reminded me of a journalist who interviewed a general about trench warfare in World War One. The general painted a rosy picture of the situation, making it out to be a bit of a camping adventure. If you really want to know about life in the trenches, ask the poor soldiers who had to live there in a world filled with death and decay, not the generals who spent their days and nights in luxurious homes miles from the front line carnage! I say this because I’m in the trenches of chess education, day after day, and have some experience regarding the issue of men versus women in chess.

Here are a few thoughts that ran through my head while reading the article in question. While I didn’t do any scientific research regarding those thoughts, I still think they raise some valid points.

First of all, if you compare the number of men playing chess to the number of women playing chess, you’ll find the number of male players greatly overshadows the number of female players. You would need more even numbers to make a real statistical comparison. For example, if over six hundred million people play chess worldwide (a number used when numerically describing the popularity of the game) and the number of male players to female players is a percentage greater than seventy percent, you can’t form a sound statistical model to base an argument on. You’d need a more even number to determine whether men are better chess players than women and you’d need a serious scientific study to back up such a claim. I haven’t seen such a study, have you?

Then there are the Polgar sisters. If you follow chess’s rich and interesting history, you’ll know that the Polgar sisters are extremely talented titled players. In fact, so strong are their talents that they could easily beat the majority of all the male chess players currently playing chess. This isn’t to say that they’d beat every single titled player in the world but they’d beat the majority of male chess players, who are not titled players. A trio sisters against, let’s say five hundred million male players, (a conservative estimate), crushing those male players (if given the chance to play them). I’d say that puts a slight dent in the argument that men are better chess players. Oh, did I mention the plethora of other titled women chess players who could equally crush our non-titled male players?

In my own work as a chess instructor and coach, I have found that my female students tend to do better when learning the game than their male counterparts. They tend to focus more on the lessons and immediately apply what they’ve learned to their games. I am a huge supporter of women in chess and work very hard to ensure that more young ladies learn to play the game. It can be difficult for them, not because there is a intellectual difference between the male and female brain, but because it’s a male dominated game and this seems to be the root of the problem.

In any given chess class that I teach, the ratio of male to female students tends to be eight to two at best, meaning that eighty percent of the class is male and twenty percent is female. Often, my young ladies will feel a bit out of place because they can sometimes be the only female in the class. Because of this, I work very hard to make them feel part of the group. I also ask them how they feel about being only young lady in the class. When they tell me they feel a “bit weird,” I tell them that rather than feel weird, feel like a hero because they are blazing the trail for other young ladies to take up chess. I also ask them if they think chess should be dominated by men? Of course, they say no! I tell them that they have the chance to change this and while they might feel uncomfortable at first, being in a male dominated situation, they can be part of chess history by turn the tide and becoming an example. My young ladies are true trail blazers and heroes, at least in my opinion.

One of the things that drew me to chess was the idea that we are a global community that doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, liberal or conservative, Christian or Muslim, male or female. We gather at the chessboard because of our love of the game. To make a claim regarding one group being better at chess than another is a direct attack against the cohesive nature of our global chess family. I take offense at the idea that men are better chess players than women!

Seriously, chess is a game that requires certain intellectual skills, meaning that one needs a working brain to process the information presented on the chessboard. Skills, such as pattern recognition, are not more developed in male brains. Both sexes have equal claim to the intellectual skills required to play chess.

The real issue at hand is the fact that you cannot claim that men are superior to women when it comes to chess and not have any proof to back it up. I know plenty of women who crush their male opponents, my wife being one of those women. Believe me, it wasn’t a sunny day at Patterson Manor when Mrs. Patterson got wind of that article. I plan on going back to more instructive articles next week as long as certain members of the chess community don’t end up in the news again. Here’s a game by a woman who is beyond brilliant when it comes to chess. She is a role model for my young ladies! Enjoy and remember, chess is for everyone.

Hugh Patterson

Share

The Power of the Threat

While executing an attack or promoting a pawn can lead to a winning game, beginners often do so because they think that action (attacking or promoting) is more powerful than the threat of action. Taking action, such as launching a successful attack against your opponent or promoting a pawn, certainly can lead to victory. However, sometimes just the threat of such actions can have a greater influence on the course of the game in the long run. An attack can fizzle out and a passed pawn can be captured. However, a good threat can create long term problems for your opponent, stalling their plans while they deal with yours!

Typically, the beginning chess player only looks at moves that lead to something concrete or immediate, such as employing a fork to win material or getting a pawn to its promotion square to add another Queen into the game. These are certainly good goals to have in mind when determining the next move in your game. However, beginners employing this type of thinking are actually looking at things in black and white terms. While the majority of the game’s principles appear to be black and white in nature, there are exceptions or gray areas which more experienced players understand and take advantage of. The threat is one such example.

When we first learn the game’s principles, such as having more attackers than opposition defenders, we approach this principle in a rather primitive way. We pick a target and start aiming our pawns and pieces at that target. As beginners we develop tunnel vision, seeing only our target which limits our consideration of other positional aspects. We use such chess principles to improve our game but when we treat a principle as an iron clad rule we run into problems. Take the threat of doing something compared to making good on that threat and taking action.

A threat is suggesting that you’re going to do something without actually doing it. You’re neighbors might be talking about throwing an all night party so you knock on their door the day before the party and tell them you’ll call the police if the party goes on past a certain hour. This is an example of a threat. Your neighbors might reconsider their party if they think the police will show up and shut it down. You might not have to even call the police because the threat of taking action means those troublesome neighbors will most like reconsider their plans. This same idea holds true in chess.

The simplest example of a strong threat in chess can be found in the passed pawn. A passed pawn is one that has no opposition pawns on the files on either side of it. So, if you have a pawn on the c file and there are no opposition pawns on the b and d files, that mighty little c pawn has a chance to make its way to its promotion square (c8 for White and c1 for Black). The threat is the threat of promotion. This creates problems for your opponent because he or she will have to keep an eye on that pawn, in the form of employing pieces to stop its promotion. Valuable opposition pieces will have to stop what they’re doing, participating actively in the game, to prevent the promotion.

Lets say you get your c pawn to the square c7. Now that pawn is one move away from promotion. The pawn on c7 is a major threat that your opponent cannot ignore. Just keeping the pawn on c7, using a pawn or piece to protect it maintains the threat. This means your opponent has to deal with that threat which can weaken his or her position because someone has to pull guard duty. If you are able to safely promote the pawn, that’s great. However, if you can maintain the threat of promoting that pawn for five or six moves you’ll be doing more damage to your opponent’s game because they’ll have to deal with that threat during each of those five or six moves.

Tactical threats are also very useful, using the same idea that your opponent has to deal with the threat. Let’s say you see a potential Knight fork that will garner material if the fork is executed. Your opponent might see the threat and have to adjust his or her plans to prevent it. If you can keep the Knight positioned so that the threat is maintained for another move or two, your opponent will have to keep shuffling pawns and pieces around to deal with the threat. This means your opponent isn’t able to execute their immediate plan and instead, deal with your threat. While gaining material is certainly worth something, forcing your opponent to deal with a threat by potentially weakening his or her position is worth more. Dealing with threats often means weakening one’s position.

Employing threats in chess is also a great way to learn how to be patient. Beginners are far from patient when they start their chess careers, often launching early attacks that might gain material but weaken their position. When developing a threat on the chessboard you have to hold off on executing the threat, or taking action, until the moment is right. In the case of our Knight fork, you don’t want to try to maintain the threat indefinitely. You want to let your opponent weaken their position and then execute the tactic, in this case a fork. This teaches the beginner a valuable lesson in both patience and timing. When to execute the fork depends on a number of positional aspects. If you’re about to lose the opportunity to execute the fork, then employ this tactic, letting the threat become reality. The same thing holds true with our pawn promotion example. All threats have an expiration date and all expiration dates are different, depending on the position.

One good way to learn about threats is to play through master level games. I have my students go through a game looking for threats. They’ll go through one game four or five times. I have them play through the game twice, simply getting a feel for the game itself, noting whether it’s open or closed game, etc. My students will then note each time a tactic is played or a passed pawn created during their third play through of the game. Next they go back and look at the moves leading up to the tactical play or moment the pawn became a passed pawn. In the case of the tactic, they note when the threat of the tactic started and how long (in moves) it took for the threat to be turned into reality (when the fork, for example, was finally employed) or stopped. With passed pawns, I have students follow the action from the moment the passed pawn was created to either its promotion or capture. How long did the threat hold up? How many pawns and pieces did the opposition have to use to deal with the threat? How was the opponent’s position weakened while dealing with the threat? By playing through master level games, students clearly see the effectiveness of threats which they can then employ in their own games.

Threats can have a greater long term value in the form of tying up opposition material and weakening one’s position. With master level games, it’s extremely educational to see how both sides make and deal with threats. Here’s a game chock full of threats by my favorite chess player, Boris Spassky. Enjoy!

Hugh Patterson

Share